Reviews: Russell Smith’s vivid voice, and Anakana Schofield can

Plus: Quicksand by Steve Toltz is deep and dark


CONFIDENCE by Russell Smith (Biblioasis), 158 pages, $19.95 paper. Rating: NNNN


You may loathe his characters – almost all of them men, many of them whiny, often recreational drug users, invariably with appalling attitudes toward women. But you have to love Russell Smith’s daring. 

Confidence, his collection of eight short stories (a Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalist), demonstrates his singular ability to write about shallow people and still make a deep impact.

In Gentrification, a man is having trouble convincing his wife that their newly acquired house in a scuzzy neighbourhood will inevitably appreciate in value. In the meantime, he’s cooking up a financial scheme to post pictures of her on a porn site and fantasizing about fucking one of his violent lesbian tenants.

In Raccoons, a man makes his three-year-old son a co-conspirator in a plan to destroy videos that could damage his marriage. Yes, sex is a factor.

The title story shows how a frustrated writer can get sucked in by a corporate honcho who’s been wining and dining him. Here, drugs are a factor.

A man copes with his wife as she’s mentally unravelling in Crazy, a story that starts out being about a man in crisis and suddenly morphs in a way that suggests that he’s no innocent.

All of the stories contain some kind of startling surprise. 

Smith has mined this population of 30-something social climbers before, but Confidence takes his blend of satire and astute observation to a new level.

He’s definitely honing a unique voice. Susan G. Cole

Smith appears at Text And The City, October 24, Studio Theatre Rogers Writers’ Trust Finalists, October 28, Brigantine Room and Writing The City, October 29, Brigantine Room.

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MARTIN JOHN by Anakana Schofield (Biblioasis), 322 pages, $19.95 paper. Rating: NNNN


This year’s Giller jury made a bold move by including Anakana Schofield’s innovative novel Martin John on the short list. Panels tend to favour user-friendly tales with either a historical twist or Canuck-centred themes, and have almost never been supporters of major format-busters.

Schofield’s book not only pushes the formal boundaries of form, it offers an ironic take on an unusual subject: the motivations of a public masturbator.

In one-page chapters, shorter snippets and sometimes even shreds, Schofield gets inside the head of Martin John, who can’t stop pressing up against young women on the subway or sneaking a hand between their legs or unzipping his fly in a restaurant, letting it all hang out and then beating off under the table.

Not that Martin, previously glimpsed in Schofield’s award-winning debut novel, Malarky, doesn’t know that he has a problem. He engages in various obsessive behaviours to keep his mind off his penis: walking in circles, trying to speak without using words beginning with the letter P, fantasizing elaborately about how his basement tenant is out to get him. But he cannot help himself.

The novel is set in London, England, but the themes resonate almost everywhere. Central to Schofield’s agenda is an excoriation of the institutions and individuals who do nothing to stop the man: police, mental health workers, a dentist’s receptionist who, in a spectacularly written sequence, pretends she doesn’t see him assaulting a female patient in the waiting room.

And then there’s his mother, who, in Schofield’s hallucinatory passages, desperately trying to convince him to stop his pervy behaviour but who has no intention of turning him in.

I’m not sure why so many critics are celebrating the book’s humour. I did not find it funny. I did, however, find it fascinating. You’ve never read anything like it. Susan G. Cole

Anakana Schofield reads October 28, Studio Theatre and October 31, Brigantine Room.

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QUICKSAND by Steve Toltz (Doubleday Canada/Bond Street), 368 pages, $34 cloth. Rating: NNNN


You’ve never read a book like Quicksand, Steve Toltz’s second novel. Nor have you ever met a character like Aldo Benjamin, on whom Toltz spends all of his 368 pages. 

The Aussie author’s astonishing follow-up to his Man Booker Prize-nominated debut A Fraction Of The Whole deconstructs the brilliant, beleaguered Aldo – beset by misfortune at every turn – first through the eyes of his lifelong best friend, Liam, a lacklustre cop and struggling writer, and then by Aldo himself. 

The generally good-hearted but self-absorbed Aldo is fresh out of jail and wheelchair-bound, but we don’t learn why until the novel’s end. His story comes to us piecemeal, with Liam, beset by his own not insignificant problems, spending the book’s first half on the tragicomic events that shaped Aldo’s ruined life, starting with his being accused of rape while still a teen virgin.

Then there’s Aldo’s lost love, Stella. His terrible health. His insurmountable debt due to failed business ventures. (Transdermal chocolates! A steak restaurant for vegans!) There’s his court appearance monologue in the book’s second half, in which he defends himself to a jury. 

It sounds dark, and it is, but humour abounds, and Aldo’s stunning pronouncements and run-on observations lend a massively entertaining absurdity. Partly set in an artists’ commune, it’s also a thoughtful meditation on why we make art, skewering artists (especially visual ones) in the process. 

Told in Toltz’s dazzling and cutting prose that moves through time and vantage points, the tale intrigues, then mesmerizes, then disturbs and then deeply horrifies before ascending into something heartbreaking and beautiful. It overwhelms you, like Aldo himself, never sagging for even a sentence. 

And it’ll resonate deeply with anybody who is eternally devoted to someone who brings to the table more darkness than light. Carla Gillis

Toltz participates in Writing The City round table on October 29, Brigantine Room and reads November 1, Lakeside Terrace. 

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